Small Wars Journal

Criminal Networks: A Gateway for Terrorists

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 10:39am

Criminal Networks: A Gateway for Terrorists

Devin M. Henry


Over the past 15 years, United States National Security has revolved around deterrence of transnational threats and near-peer competitors.  The continued ideological influence of Middle Eastern terror networks and their ability to change U.S. National Security has left the Geographic Combatant Command regions lacking the necessary resources and effectiveness to combat their respective issues.  The U.S. Southern Command has a tremendous bearing on the U.S. National and domestic security efforts based on proximity and the nature of threats to the U.S. borders. 

The SOUTHCOM region is comprised of the Caribbean islands, Central and South America.  Most of the countries are developed or developing but also have their share of security issues adversely affecting U.S. security and interests.  Latin America’s security problems are linked to the massive amount of trafficking in drugs, persons and weapons to the U.S. and globally at a pandemic rate. The center issue is the rise of drug cartels with massive influence in the SOUTHCOM region. The largest cartels come from Mexico with drug production primarily located in Columbia, Venezuela and Central American countries used as launch points to ship or fly commodities globally.  However, the larger issue for U.S. national security is not just the war on drugs but the use of drug trafficking, financial operations and influence that could be used to support transnational terror organizations. Migrating Mexican drug cartels and their influence, left unchecked, threaten stability in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility as well as U.S. national security by creating networks in which criminal elements and transnational terrorist groups can join forces to disrupt U.S. and Latin American security efforts.

U.S National Security Efforts in Latin America

In the National Security Strategy for 2015, the President of the United States and his National Security advisors identified vital elements to national security; reinforce Homeland Security and combat the persistent threat of terrorism[i].  Although both issues are broad in nature, they clearly define and can arguably be the key components for continuing the wars and conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and the prevention of other large-scale terror attacks against the U.SIn 2016, SOUTHCOM Combatant Commander Admiral Kurt W. Tidd identified several security environment concerns that affect SOUTHCOM, which are transnational organized crime, foreign terrorists’ fighters, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, regional stability and Russia and China engagements[ii].  These concerns help shape and develop how Admiral Tidd conducts and executes joint and interagency operations in support of U.S. and Latin American national security and interests.  Admiral Tidd’s top three security environment concerns at the macro level are individual problems, however as the problems narrow to the different countries or regions, it’s clear that transnational organized crime, foreign terrorist fighters, and influence from Iran and Hezbollah are all interconnected and global issues.  Admiral Tidd stated that the principle challenge remains transnational criminal networks, which are well-organized, well-financed, well-armed and technologically advanced.[iii]  The issue with these organizations goes much deeper than just drug distribution.  The concern is the ability to make and transport illegal commodities in unlimited amounts whereby disrupting U.S. National Security. The second issue is the concern by the triple threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. These fighters have the ability to move globally as well as influence and inspire others to commit terrorist attacks abroad further affecting security.  Lastly, a majority of these foreign fighters have well-documented ties to transnational terrorist groups and non-state actors.

Transnational Organized Criminal Threats

Transnational organized crime in Latin American can be linked to the brutal drug cartels from Mexico.  Since the early 2000s, Mexican drug cartels have begun to migrate from Mexico through Central America and in many drug production areas in South America.  Many routes are used to traffic drugs, weapons and people to and from cartel operation centers.  The most popular city is Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world located in the Mexican and U.S. border[iv].  These major trafficking routes have become a highway for undesirables and products that have had significant effects on the population in both the U.S. and Latin America. 

The deadliest drug cartel is the Sinaloa Federation which has been responsible for mass murders and atrocities throughout Mexico and Central America.  By many accounts, the Sinaloa Federation once led by the infamous Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman controlled approximately 40-60% of the country’s trafficking network, with earning around 3 million dollars[v].  Since the rise of the Sinaloa Federation, there have been several spin-off transnational criminal organizations that have come to power regionally and globally in the drug trade. The lethality, complexity, and technologically advanced networks have made the cartels extremely dangerous for the U.S. and Latin America.

Migrating Mexican Cartels

Figure 1: Mexican Drug Routes and Area of Influence[vi]

In the past ten years, the war on drugs has not prevented the Mexican cartels from migrating to Latin American countries.  As the Mexican cartels move further south in search of ungoverned spaces to advance their empire, an argument is made that the cartels are in search of not only land but viable partners and associates to build and influence a global network.  As the cartel’s power and influence grow so does, their reach trans-regionally with goals of future global dominance through the drug trade. 

The cartel’s intentions are not to control countries or push an ideology that could potentially incite violence in Latin American.  Their primary purpose is to sell illegal goods, build an empire and make money; the end user is irrelevant.  This makes cartels extremely dangerous as their goals can create significant issues and concerns for Latin American security and SOUTHCOM’s efforts to defeat the networks. Mexican drug cartels have migrated and settled in the jungle regions of Guatemala and Honduras as well as urban areas in Costa Rica, the Caribbean, and South America further embellishing their criminal network to support their global pathways and influence.  Admiral Tidd addresses this issue in his posture statement to Congress; he states that Southern Command lacks the intelligence to identify, monitor drug cartels activities, which would assist in understanding these networks and the resources necessary to disrupt, degrade and dismantle them.[vii] This issue has a cause for concern especially with the rise of foreign non-state actors and threats to national security.

Cartels to Terrorists: Global Influence

Transnational criminal organizations in recent years have gained the confidence in partnership, financing and illegal trafficking with terrorist organizations abroad.  This identified correlation is tied to Admiral Tidd’s concern over foreign terrorist fighters entering Latin American countries. Additionally, partner nations lack the infrastructure to monitor the travel of personnel traffic from state-supported and non-state supported insurgents.[viii]

In the last three years, as the rise of ISIS has dominated most of the Middle East and their ideology have spread globally, SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility has not been exempt from their propaganda.  As early as 2012, drug cartels have been courting terror networks from several countries to include Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Africa and Afghanistan in hopes to move drugs from Mexico and Latin America to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East for enormous profit.

The largest group to have links with drug cartels has been Hezbollah a Lebanese terrorist group responsible for several terror attacks.   Hezbollah has historical ties to Latin America and has continued to maintain connections to organized criminal networks. Latin America’s unpredictable environment has become a breeding ground for extremism[ix].   Lebanese terror organization in collaboration with Mexican and Latin American cartels have expanded the drug trade and financial network across to the Middle East.  Hezbollah’s financial operations are thriving in Latin America, according to former DEA operations chief Michael Braun, Hezbollah is moving tons of cocaine to Europe and has developed the most sophisticated money laundering system.[x]

The U.S. security concern comes with limited but credible intelligence that highlights drug smugglers efforts to sneak immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia straight to the doorstep of the U.S.[xi]  This is a significant concern for the U.S.  Furthermore, this is evident by U.S. Immigration officials.  Who have identified several Middle Eastern men being smuggled through Latin America, by way of a Brazilian-based network, that connected the smuggled persons to a Mexican cartel, who guided them to the U.S. border[xii].   However, the greater concern is the number of Lebanese nationals living in Latin America especially in Brazil.  Although the recruiting drive for Hezbollah has not happened to date, an estimated 7 million Shia Muslims may be a cause for future concerns. 

Just as the Iranian-backed Lebanese supported Hezbollah found a home in Latin America through a courtship with Mexican drug cartels and other criminal organizations. The fear of terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, Taliban, Islamic State (ISIS) and cartels joining forces is a significant challenge to SOUTHCOM security and stability.  The current major threat globally is ISIS and the spread of terror and extremism which could threaten Latin American security efforts.  SOUTHCOM theater strategy has allowed them to develop systems, influence partners and gain insights on how to illuminate, dismantle and disrupt networks and transnational terrorist organizations ability to operate freely.  What is clear is that a new approach is needed as Latin American countries debate alternatives to the U.S. war on drugs[xiii].

Counter Argument

Some can argue that there is minimal evidence that drug cartels have partnered with terror organizations. The major divide between the groups is the ideology.  Drug cartel’s function solely for profit and territorial control not jihads, they understand that pressure over drug wars is manageable. However, pressure from world powers based on terrorism is a different matter.  This fundamental difference is the reason why cartel networks avoid risky business with transnational terror organization war against the U.S.  Many could argue that extremism is bad for the regional drug business, however, could it produce enormous profit globally for cartels. But the fact remains that cartels and terrorists share a common vision of exploiting the seams that the U.S and other coalition countries cannot cover. Additionally, the well-established criminal networks provide the architecture and jet stream for terrorists to move undetected through SOUTHCOMs region to establish a seam in which terror attacks can be planned and executed on U.S or coalition soil.


SOUTHCOM should focus on the network rather than the war on drugs.  In a recent visit to the Naval War College, Admiral Tidd explained that the war on drugs has not diminished the demand for drugs, or lessened the distribution; therefore, the war is on the networks in which they operate.[xiv] To attack the networks, one recommendation is SOUTHCOM should include inter-agency experts to advise and assist partner nations in developing the capacity to attack terrorist or transnational criminal networks. The critical capabilities to concentrate on would be intelligence gathering through drone, human intelligence, targeting process and execution once the target is identified.  The second recommendation is the development and implementation of partner nations cyber capability, cell phone and network hacks and bank account monitoring as this will increase the host country’s ability to conduct disruption operations regionally which will eventually lead to global network disruption.  The last recommendation is to grow SOUTHCOM’s area by bringing Mexico into the SOUTHCOM AOR due to the level of influence in the Latin America, thus, U.S. Northern Command should operate the internal portion of the U.S. plus the border of Mexico to Mexico City, allowing NORTHCOM to focus on drugs, displaced persons, migration and terrorist activities from Mexico to the U.S. border.  Due to the migration of Mexican drug cartels into Central and South America, this may leverage partner coordination and seamless intelligence sharing with more organizations and more manageable sectors which will increase the reach and disruption efforts of SOUTHCOM partners.


Latin America plays a key strategic role in the U.S. national security efforts but also have a significant role in global security.  SOUTHCOM focused issues of transnational criminal organizations, foreign terrorist fighters and Iran and Hezbollah influence, are critical not only to the war on drugs and trafficking but is essential in defeating the networks that tie each of them together. This is seen in the spread of drug cartels influence, their links to terrorist groups and operations in Central and South America.  SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral Tidd, has the proper vision of implementing Joint Interagency Task Forces to attack networks that thrive in the ungoverned spaces in the region.  Through developing host nation partnerships and fostering intelligence sharing, will increase SOUTHCOMs ability to detect and disrupt transnational criminal networks that threaten U.S. and Latin American national and regional security efforts.

Selected Bibliography

Foreign Military Studies Office. “Mexican Drug Cartel Areas and Influence.” accessed 16 September,

Keshavarz, Alma. “Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America: A Look at the “Old TBA” and the “New TBA.” Small Wars Journals, accessed 25 September,

McGee, Nicole. Mexico, “Drug Trafficking Organizations, Realism, and Human Security.” Portland University. Vol 7; Issue 1, Article 15, accessed 17 September,

Obama, Barack. POTUS. “National Security Strategy.” February 2015, accessed 20 September,

Park, Madison. CNN. “Mexico’s Most Notorious Drug Cartel.” accessed 19 September,

Taylor, Guy. “Hezbollah moving “tons of cocaine” in Latin America, Europe to finance terror operations.” Washington Times, accessed 20 September,

Tidd, Kurt W. “Southern Command Posture Statement, Before the 114th Congress Senate Arms Committee.” Accessed 10 September,

Tidd, Kurt W. Naval War College Lecture of Opportunity-SOUTHCOM. 22 September 2016.

End Notes

[i] Barack Obama, POTUS, National Security Strategy, (February 2015), accessed 20 September,

[ii] Admiral Kurt Tidd, Southern Command Posture Statement, Before the 114th Congress Senate Arms Committee, (March 2016), Accessed 10 September,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Nicole McGee, Mexico, Drug Trafficking Organizations, Realism, and Human Security. Portland University 7; Issue 1, Article 15, accessed 17 September,

[v] Madison Park, CNN, Mexico’s Most Notorious Drug Cartel, accessed 19 September,

[vi]  Foreign Military Studies Office, Mexican Drug Cartel Areas and Influence, accessed 16 September,

[vii] Admiral Kurt Tidd, Southern Command Posture Statement, Before the 114th Congress Senate Arms Committee, Accessed 10 September,

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Alma Keshavarz, Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America: A Look at the “Old TBA” and the “New TBA”, Small Wars Journals, accessed 25 September,

[x] Guy Taylor. Hezbollah moving “tons of cocaine” in Latin America, Europe to finance terror operations, Washington Times, accessed 20 September,

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] David Huey, The US war on drugs and its legacy in Latin America, The Guardian, accessed 18 September,

[xiv] Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Naval War College Lecture of Opportunity-SOUTHCOM. 22 September 2016.


About the Author(s)

Major Devin M. Henry is an Armor Officer in the U.S. Army.  He holds an graduate degree in Organizational Management and a graduate degree in Defense and Strategic Studies. He has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom where he took part in combat operations, counterinsurgency, and security force assistance. Additionally, he deployed in support of United States Security Coordination in support of the United States efforts in Israel.  He is currently assigned to the United States Army Joint Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, TX